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The human touch: Density done right

By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population is forecast to be living in cities, making greater density inevitable. But for many, density is still a dirty word, conjuring thoughts of unchecked development that puts growth before humanity. Can we dispel that myth by applying ‘the human touch’ to Australia’s fast-growing cities, designing precincts where density is a positive for people? Principal Michele McSharry tackled the subject at the recent Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat global conference. Here, she talks about the upsides of density and the value of exploring new models for urban regeneration.

Have you ever heard visitors to high-density cities such as Paris, Singapore, or Barcelona say they’re too busy? Too active? Too vibrant? The answer is probably ‘no’. People are drawn to places like these precisely because of the rich range of experiences they offer.

As influential theorist and activist Jane Jacobs put it so succinctly: ‘The point of cities is multiplicity of choice.’

When it’s done well, designing for density makes a city dynamic and energetic.

It translates to livability, convenience, and opportunity. It creates a platform for civic life. It humanises density.

Sustainable growth + resilient communities

Successful cities are about much more than their collection of buildings and open spaces. They combine living and working with nature, entertainment, culture, and places to gather. They are organised around good transport infrastructure – reducing their reliance on cars – and adopt built form models that allow for diversity, affordability, and flexibility.

In Australia, these are the issues we’re grappling with now. With high immigration and a strong economy, our country sits in the top quartile for population and GDP growth globally. As a result, our major cities continue to densify and expand.

Architects, urban designers, and planners now have an even greater responsibility to get it right when it comes to land use planning, mass transit infrastructure, and new development models. We need to find ways to reduce our dependence on cars, like many of our international counterparts. We need to ensure that urban regeneration supports sustainable and resilient communities.

Experiments in urban design

At Architectus, we look at density through a different lens every year at our annual Design Charrettes. Now in its 15th year, the event brings together designers from different geographies, disciplines, and experience levels to respond to a unique design challenge in one of the major Australian and New Zealand cities in which we operate.

Collaborating on speculative, district-scale projects, our Charrette teams explore opportunities for positive, sustainable urban regeneration and diverse, networked precincts. This gives us the opportunity to test different methodologies, technologies, and blue-sky thinking we can then apply to our real-world projects.

So what are some approaches to humanising the city? How do we achieve excellent high-density places for people?

As Jane Jacobs understood some 60 years ago, getting the collection of parts right comes down to three simple things: diversity of land use, diversity of mobility options, and diversity of building typologies.

Coming together: Barrack Place, Sydney

Barrack Place

Diversity of land use

For our 13th Charrette in 2021, we looked at Bays West on Gadigal land in Sydney, an historically industrial area being rezoned and replanned as a new high density, mixed-use precinct.

Our teams focused on the mix of built forms and uses in Bays West – and the diversity of open space and public domain needed to support that density and foster long-term resilience.

We also looked at redressing the site’s long history of taking from Country with an approach we called ‘take, take, give’, considering land title, natural topology, primary resources, and habitat.

Our reimagined precinct re-generates these natural resources and re-establishes a lost connection back to the water’s edge, both as a meeting place for the people and a source of closed-loop food production. In addition to restoring elements of the original shoreline, we created spaces for start-ups as well as aquaculture to heal the harbour.

The concept weaves together:

-264,000 sqm of mixed-use workspace
-217,000 sqm for research and innovation
-151,000sqm of public open space
-28,000sqm of marine regeneration
-12,000sqm of community space, and
-8,400 residential dwellings.

By co-locating jobs, housing, open space, regenerated nature, and activity, our speculative design sparks the joy, surprise, and excitement that humanise a place. This can only be achieved with diversity and density.

A new view: the Bays West precinct in Sydney

Diversity of mobility options

In Brisbane on Turrbul and Jagera/Yuggera land, we have explored ways to leverage existing and future rail infrastructure investment and unlock city-shaping connections and land parcels.

Australian cities have traditionally been planned as low density ‘hub and spoke’ cities with dormitory suburbs connecting to CBDs, meaning they are dispersed and heavily car dependent. Good, humanised density must be supported by
diversity of mobility options: mass rapid transit, walking and cycling networks, and last mile transport.

For Charrette 14 in 2022, we zoomed into the city’s Roma Street precinct, investigating the open space and connections around rail land and the opportunities it presents to re-shape the city. We saw this as a chance to redress the balance of land uses and severed connections, adjust the proportion of open space to built form, and give space consumed by vehicles back to the public.

The area, Wilwinpa, was once a gathering place for tournaments and ceremony. The colonial city cut off First Nations groups from the tournament ground under a tangle of roads and rail that disconnected the city from its vibrant inner suburbs.

Our vision for the precinct weaved together the diverse layers of this shared space – a site of ceremony, a meeting ground, a water story, a community – to focus on local economic development, social resilience, and connectivity.

We did this by healing the city’s relationship with the river, adding over 100,000 sqm of new green space and stitching the precinct to the wider city with new pedestrian bridges and walkable boulevards.

The buildings and program co-locate diverse uses and support a new economy.

For example, spaces for start-ups – anchored by a new vertical university campus – plus maker spaces, labs, and creative industries all contribute to an ecosystem of innovation.

A variety of environments to meet the different needs of a tech value chain are dotted throughout the precinct, and three linked, vertical campuses for university and post-secondary education and training line Roma Street, along with a hotel and accommodation for students, seniors and key workers.

Multi-connected: the Roma Street precinct in Brisbane

Diversity of building typologies

In our future cities, we need a variety of building types catering to a diverse population.

Right now, as we grapple with a housing crisis in Australia, there’s tension over ‘going up’ or ‘going out’. High-rise apartment buildings often stir up negative feelings about density. And some of the worst ‘cookie cutter’ examples – designed for the investor market – can be de-humanising and alienating.

Contemporary, detached house neighbourhoods can be equally isolating, especially in suburbs following a single land use model, with few supporting essential services.

The gap between remote detached housing and high-rise apartments – the much-discussed ‘missing middle’ – means we’re short on options for diverse dwelling types for a diverse population.

These are places that are strategically located, adaptable over time, and enable rich communities to form and thrive.

For our most recent Charrette, we had all these challenges in mind as we investigated new opportunities for Thebarton in Adelaide on Kaurna land, a former light industrial corridor just outside the city grid that is ripe for renewal.

The challenge we set ourselves: repair the river and allow the pre-colonial landscape to ‘rewild’ Thebarton while also creating a desirable place to live, learn, and work. We wanted to rebalance the urban form in the context of nature, breaking away from both the Adelaide grid and the traditional street block to design new models that truly work with Country.

Our Charrette teams explored housing typologies addressing that crucial ‘missing middle’, creating around 30 residential blocks from 4-8 levels clustered around open space and within reach of active transport links connecting open space corridors and activity nodes. These are grouped to respond to the topography the river and the overland flow and flooding patterns, repairing the landscape while providing biophilic places to live.

Mixed housing: the Thebarton precinct in Adelaide

A balanced urban eco-system

There are enormous opportunities to humanise cities at both an urban renewal and greenfield scale in Australia. Some of this work is already under way, including on city-shaping projects such as the Central Precinct Renewal Program in Sydney, with Architectus preparing the re-zoning proposal for the last four years.

Momentum and consensus continue to build, with many in our industry and beyond advocating for smart, medium density development. That includes recent reports from the NSW Productivity Commission on ‘Building more homes where people want to live’ and ‘Melbourne’s Missing Middle’ from grassroots group YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard).

“The Missing Middle is about urban optimism,” notes Lead Organiser Jonathan O’Brien in the foreword to YIMBY’s report. “It’s about the excitement and energy that comes from living in a dynamic, ever-changing city, and it’s about embracing and relishing that process of change, creating space for all the new stories yet to be told.”

It’s a sentiment that could apply to any of our fast-growing cities in Australia, where we need to continually pursue new opportunities for positive, sustainable urban regeneration and networked, diverse precincts supported by transport infrastructure. Only then can we demonstrate that density can be good for humanity.

City shaping: the Central Precinct Renewal project in Sydney

Sydney Central Precinct Renewal Program 2022

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